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Democracy in Indian Country: Yeah, Right!

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The election season in northern Minnesota Indigenous territories was especially contentious this year. Primary election results were contested in all six Minnesota Chippewa Tribe territories. Everyone who contested lost.

In the Leech Lake territory the contest went as far as the Tribal Appeals Court. At issue were key questions regarding the conduct of candidates and the use of unauthorized voting practices. Some candidates were engaged in vote buying, electioneering, voter intimidation and illegal use of absentee ballots. A completely unauthorized voting practice termed “On-Demand” ballots and voting was employed. Neither the Leech Lake Council nor the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Tribal Executive Committee or the Election Ordinance gave permission for such a practice. Yet the Contest Judge and the Appeals Judges acted as though these practices had some legitimacy in their rulings.

The Election Ordinance does define that electioneering and “behavior that distracts, interrupts or interferes with the Election.” cannot occur within 200 feet of a polling place and the only consequence for doing any of this is that you will be removed or excluded from the polling place. Therein lies the problem, this kind of behavior is bad only if it occurs within 200 feet of the polling place or inside the polling station.

So one could stand 201 feet away and actively electioneer, hand out $20 bills to vote for so-and-so, intimidate voters, commit voter fraud and there are absolutely no consequences for any of this.

Both levels of the courts focused on whether or not the numeric vote count would have been changed and if it had, is a new election warranted? The Appellants argued that the issue was bigger than just the vote count but went to the whole question as to whether or not a fair and democratic election had been held if these practices were allowed to stand uncontested.

The Appellants asked, “..to what level must these violations rise to be considered a threat and placing the electoral process in imminent danger of fraud, corruption, and manipulation?” The Appeals Court never answers this question.

In an indirect way the Appeals Court kind of answers when it says, “The purpose of including a requirement that an election only be set aside it can be demonstrated that an irregularity impacted the results is to lessen the financial burden imposed upon a Tribe that would be required to conduct a new election every time a violation of a Tribe’s election law is documented. If such a requirement did not exist, for example, a losing candidate would only have to demonstrate one violation such as an ineligible voter was allowed to vote or an eligible voter was denied the right to vote…In many situations there would never be such a thing as final election results because any irregularity would result in a new election.”

Now there’s an opinion devoid of common sense. The issue one voting irregularity is easily remedied in the legislation governing such issues. No one would be advocating that one vote irregularity is sufficient to overturn an entire election.

What they completely sidestep is the issue that a voting practice was used without official authorization. They do recognize that the voting machine vendor has adapted its technology to offer the so-called “on-demand” ballots that allowed “on-demand” voting.

Fine, it’s a positive technological advancement. But it remains that this process was never authorized by the governing bodies. Instead, what is occurring feels like a conspiracy between the voting machine vendor, the Election Board and now the Courts to grant backdoor approval for the use of this technology. But there’s one problem, none of them are the governing body with whom the sole authority for such a procedure rests.

The Appeals Court goes on to say, “That is not to say that this Court condones election improprieties or believes that they should be overlooked if the votes are so disparate for candidates that they are not impactful”.

Maybe there is no quantifiable way to measure the full impact on an election because of the introduction of a new voting technology and process without due disclosure to the electorate and the approval of the governing authorities. But it is also the sheer absence of such quantifiable measurement that raises the specter of an unknown degree of fraud, deception, and misinformation occurring that can and may sway an election.

At the heart of this problem are groups of people who have been elected into office to be the government of an Indigenous nation and territory and are absolutely clueless about how to be such a government. One day Joe is a laborer at a construction site or Amy was a waitress and the next day they are the governing authority with a multi-million dollar budget, hundreds of employees, millions of dollars of technology and infrastructure and no training or education on how to govern.

I remember a District Representative at a particular nation who has FASD. He got elected because he has a huge family and had the backing of one person on council who needed a third vote to swing the governing power over to them. He’s a nice enough guy with the equivalent of a fifth grade education and the lack of any impulse or anger control. That made for four really nasty years.

Within a couple of months of his going into office there were all sorts of complaints against him. Some made by his own family members. The complaints went nowhere because of the total lack of any consequences in the policies and procedures of the nation. And the complaints were thwarted because the council always hides behind “sovereign immunity” denying any accountability to their constituents.

The nation court is impotent because all of the judges are appointed by the council and their paychecks are signed by the council.

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has been around since 1987, telling us that all of the above is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, there have been a few nations who have heeded the lessons and models put forth by the Project. But far too many have not.

All of this is frustrating because there is no need for such nonsense going on in our territories. We come from highly democratic governments in which leadership was disciplined, held high integrity, and worked for the best interest of the people and the future.

For most of us we are not that far removed from the times when we were truly self-governing and actualizing our inherent rights instead of mimicking and adhering to the settler’s joke of a democratic form of governance found in the Indian Reorganization Act.

The major roadblocks to restoring our original forms of governing and governance are our own internalized racism and inability to de-colonize ourselves. Until we are prepared to address these two sinister and insidious factors we will be stuck with the systems we have.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.